Here’s proof that “Hard Right,” a vicious political drama from David Barth, scrapes some kind of nerve: At the performance reviewed, patrons started yelling at each other across the aisles during the play. “How can you laugh at this? It’s not funny!” said one man, reacting to the crowd’s titters as a mysterious government agent terrorized a suburban family. But the laughs kept coming, especially when the agent offered absurd rationales for his behavior. “How can you laugh?” the man repeated, until someone retorted, “Don’t tell me what to think!”
But the better response might have been, “Don’t tell me what to feel.” Because although “Hard Right” courts a political agenda, it’s less a thought-provoking inquiry than a swift kick in the gut.
Barth, who also directs, has created such a visceral display of violence that viewers could easily be polarized, either shuddering at its power or laughing at its outsized intensity.
That’s not unlike the effect of certain Pinter plays, in which terror springs from chatty rogues with unclear motives. Barth’s work especially recalls “The Birthday Party,” as both plays introduce characters who are subtly cruel to one another and then subject each other to unexplained menace.
But though it traffics mainly in dread, the production’s tone is expertly controlled. At first, Barth even invites us to let down our guard. The opening scenes — in which Henry (Jeremy Beck) returns from school for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with the folks — have the breezy pace and throwaway jokes of situation comedy, offering no clue of what’s to come.
And when Bob (Dylan Price) arrives, saying he’s conducting a survey for Henry’s college, the script teases us for a long time into thinking something worse will unfold.
The hint of danger, though, is all in the words: Price’s engrossing perf keeps Bob collected and polite. Even when he’s telling the family they cannot leave their home, his calm makes it chillingly hard to anticipate when his temper will blow. And once he has exploded, he regains his composure so quickly that we can be fooled into thinking he’s finished his attack.
Like the rest of the ensemble, Price never seems to be acting. The naturalness of the perfs gives this production the taint of a grisly documentary. Tears, screams and rushes for the door have all been crafted to arise at believable moments.
Such verite violence is not easy to watch, and some might call it lurid. However, Barth applies a touch of unreality with his heightened language, and he gives the play a larger purpose by voicing obvious political biases.
Bob, for instance, justifies his actions by saying they’re at the service of right-wing causes. Not that he commits to one over another: He might say he’s testing the family’s resolve in case a terrorist tortures them for information, only to suggest later that he’s trying to get the Jewish clan to convert to Christianity.
Ultimately, none of the reasons stick. The emotional assault overwhelms the messages, leaving the impression that Barth is shrieking against conservative politics in general rather than a specific act or value.
There undoubtedly will be auds who dismiss the play for its lack of ideological clarity. But Barth’s ambiguous approach makes his work more unsettling. Without a specific root, oppression becomes a force on its own, tearing through the play unchecked.
Invincible, oppressive violence is an uncomfortable idea. No wonder auds are fighting over how to receive it.